Mind your language

Or, to turn it around, your language is your mind. This is a far-reaching statement, and one I know I can’t prove or disprove scientifically.

My only consolation is that neither can anyone else – and for no lack of trying. Neurophysiologists, psychologists and practitioners of God only knows how many other disciplines have been trying, and failing, for yonks to establish an ironclad link between language and thought.

Billions have been pumped into all those Genome Projects, Decades of the Brain and similar megalomaniac undertakings – all for the scientists to find out that some parts of their scanner displays sometimes light up and sometimes they don’t.

However, leaving the realm of forensic proof for that of observation and speculative inference, one can’t help noticing that native speakers of different languages think differently.

I don’t mean the destination of their thought process, but the process itself: its structure, directness, accents, emotional colouring and so on. And even in the absence of a scanner with its blinking display, I am still certain that one’s thinking technique is inextricably linked with one’s native (or first) language.

(The parenthetical phrase above points to a distinction. True enough, I can testify from personal experience that one’s mother tongue doesn’t necessarily remain one’s first language for life.)

It’s even possible to generalise that a nation’s language shapes its character. Or it may be the other way around, but a strong link exists in either case.

The two languages I know best, English and Russian, provide useful material for comparative study. They are as different as two European languages can be, and, as anyone with first-hand experience of the English and the Russians can testify, the same goes for the way they think.

Comparing an Englishman and a Russian of equally high intelligence, one is struck by how differently they shape their thoughts. Borrowing art terms, an Englishman is likely to be a classicist, while a Russian will be leaning towards impressionism at best, abstract expressionism at worst.

If an argument between the two occurs, they’d both be frustrated with each other.

The Russian will think that the Englishman can’t see the forest of ultimate truth for the trees of coldblooded casuistic detail and disembodied sequential reasoning. The Englishman will feel that the Russian can irresponsibly say anything that comes to his mind, colouring it with misplaced, effusive emotion and ignoring elementary logic.

Both will have a point, although neither may ascribe the difference to his mother tongue. Yet I’m convinced that’s where at least some of the problem lies.

The complete lexicon of English has roughly three times the number of words as Russian. Even if we make allowances for the many technical areas with their recondite terminology being more advanced in the Anglophone countries, the disparity is still vast.

That enables an educated Anglophone to fracture concepts into finely nuanced fragments, each precisely defined. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a Russian won’t be able to communicate most of the same nuances.

But where an Englishman can hit the bull’s eye with one accurately aimed word, a Russian will have to look for a roundabout, descriptive route to the same target.

That makes him too verbose and vague for the English taste, while the Russian will deplore his interlocutor’s obsession with desiccated precision. The Russian will also be more likely to fill the lexical gaps with emotive inflection, making the Englishman wince.

All in all, and I know the skies will open and the god of wokery will smite me with his lightning, the English language and hence thought tend to be masculine, and the Russian, feminine. This isn’t to suggest that one is superior to the other — only that they are different.

The same goes for the two grammars.

Russian is a morphological language, whereas English is an analytical one. In linguistics, a morphological language relies on adding affixes to the same root to convey both nuances of meaning and the word’s relationship with other words in the same sentence. An analytical language, on the other hand, keeps the words stable while relying on other words, such as particles and prepositions, to do the same job.

The Russophones among you will know what I mean, but for the benefit of others this is what a Russian can do by adding different suffixes to the sacramental word ‘vodka’. Talking to those who indeed hold that word as sacred, one can hear vodochka, vodchishka, vodchishechka, vodchyonka, vodchyonochka – and I’m sure I’ve left some possibilities out.

All those suffixes convey different degrees of emotional attachment, something that an Anglophone will struggle to do within the confines of a single word. We can say drinkypoo, but something like whiskykin would be stretching it.

To borrow a term from yet another field, the molecule of a Russian root has a greater valence, which goes some way towards making up for the lower number of words.

It’s not just words, it’s also sentences. An English speaker has to have a good reason for inverting the lapidary structure of subject-predicate-object and will only do so for stylistic emphasis. (Compare “I like vodka” with “Vodka I like”.)

A Russian sentence, on the other hand, has no lapidary sentence structure, no prescribed word order. That enables Russians to play fast and loose with their sentences, although it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say their word order is entirely arbitrary. Still, Russian grammar isn’t nearly as structured as the English equivalent, which allows for greater freedom – but also for greater slackness and sloppiness.

The combination of profuse suffixes and free sentence structure make Russian a better language than English for writing poetry, especially rhymed verse. Even Russian poets of modest talent can produce excellent poems, whereas it takes a great poet to do so in English.

In the hands of a lesser artist (some of the Lake poets come to mind), English rhymed poetry often sounds like doggerel. That’s why, unable to rely on affixation to produce interesting rhymes, English poets have always gravitated to blank or free verse much more than their Russian colleagues ever have.

At the same time, Russian doesn’t even come close to English in the genre of the essay. This may explain why Russia has only produced a couple of internationally recognised philosophers.

English enables its practitioners to achieve the ultimate freedom of expression, something for which a rigid discipline is a sine qua non. At the same time, the terminological precision of English is a valuable tool in the hands of an adept user.

Russians, on the other hand, don’t recognise discipline as a precondition for freedom, a failing that transcends language, going all the way to thought in general and political thought in particular. The old Russian word for freedom, volia, is etymologically related to ‘will’, and indeed freedom for a Russian is the ability to do as he will, not to have his rights protected by the discipline of just law.

In poll after poll, the Russians opt in overwhelming numbers for a strong leader in preference to any legal system – something unthinkable for an educated Englishman (or anyone else raised under the aegis of English Common Law). A scholar will identify, correctly, any number of historical, social, cultural and economic reasons for that difference.

Yet language is unlikely to rate a mention as an important factor, which is unfortunate. I thinks it merits pride of place among the dynamics forming a consciousness, both collective and individual. In the very least, this link deserves serious attention.

8 thoughts on “Mind your language”

  1. A fascinating essay, Mr Boot. Your thesis is at first sight very persuasive. I’m not sure, though, that the correspondence you find between morphology and culture (your argument extends further than just psychology and poetry) works when one extends it to other languages. Latin and Greek, for instance, both share a similar morphological structure (as one would expect, given their greater nearness to PIE), but their cultures were very different, as were their ways of thinking. The Romans themselves accepted this, which is why Greek was, in imperial Rome, the language that aristocratic Romans preferred to use (rather like the use of French in pre-Communist Russia), and wealthy Romans bought educated Greek slaves to tutor their children.

    I wonder whether any of your readers are expert in any of the ultra-analytical languages like Mandarin or Vietnamese, and if so, whether they could comment on the thought processes of native speakers of those languages.

    1. Thank you for you kind words. I have only one thing in common with Shakespeare (literary genius demonstrably isn’t it), who, according to Ben Jonson, had “small Latin and less Greek”, so it’s hard for me to get into the nitty-gritty of the issue. Still, I tend to treat Greece and Rome as belonging to the same Hellenic culture, if different civilisations. Could this similarity be ascribed to the similar grammatical structures? And what came first, the similarity of the structures? In a word, I don’t know. But it’s worth pondering.

  2. Extremely interesting idea. Of course, it had more relevance 50 years ago, before the bastardization of language became commonplace (at least in the Colonies). Perhaps that has contributed to our muddled thinking these days? Every noun can also be a verb. Every verb can be a noun. And most nouns are now racist, or elitist, or imperialistic.

    My wife is currently studying speech pathology. It has led to some interesting discussions. Pronunciation is vastly more complex (and in some sense, uncontrolled) than I ever imagined. How do the deaf form their thoughts? How do they process complex interactions?

  3. The cartoon reminds one of the old joke, “There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who do not.” Well, maybe it’s a joke only for old computer programmers.

  4. Regarding “one’s thinking technique is inextricably linked with one’s language…and, that a nation’s language shapes its character. Or it may be the other way around, but a strong link exists in either case.”
    Moving from the national level to the personal I would add that social standing and acceptance governs the mind, language and behaviour. That’s why we have in outer Australian city suburbs, the ‘bogan’, while Chicago has the ghetto mind and elsewhere the aristocrat. People want to be loved and part of some segment of society.
    This need to belong, and that identification by language is what Marxists use to shape the mind and subsequent reshaping of behaviour. This is clearly evident with the new agendas in education across the planet. Traditional Geography has been replaced with Sustainable Development Goals. The socialists controlling the educational system can slowly take the responsibly of the student away from the parents and pull them into their own sphere of influence.
    The role of the school in this context can then be expanded under the guise of a morality to direct young minds using a Social Emotional Learning system towards a subjective Rousseauian idealism and Marxian social order. Increasingly education department have staff as loco parentis asking about their mental health, emotional intelligence, and so forth. ‘Are you feeling depressed?’ ‘Are you having suicidal thoughts?’ ‘How do you feel about the impending doom of climate change?’ The list goes on in shaping the character of the next generation, in all strata of society globally.

      1. Yes! Just revisited it…p. 108 ” Modman simply have to destroy every fundamental tenet of Westman.” or p. 315 ” a single world government can be achieved only by an irreversible destruction of the traditional political and legal instutions.” (and the reeducation in schools I might add).
        Your ” perilous” prediction p. 286 , by the way, is prooving true!

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